Rooting through the Wren…

I’ve spent the last two days ploughing through musty letters, journals, postcards, receipts, photographs, sketchbooks, and (seemingly) every other form of paper matter you might imagine.  Reflecting on this process, I’ve come to the following conclusion:  having a plan, in terms of searching for the ‘golden nugget’ of information, doesn’t always work.  This is to say, there is only so much you can predict in terms of what you might find using a catalogue or database (telling you what various files contain, etc.).  The rest, I think, is just luck.  Hence it really is, some of the time anyway, just a case of making a stab in the dark and hoping to come up with something.

As such, I made my way through just under 100 letters written by Julian Trevelyan to his mother, Elizabeth Trevelyan.  The letters start when JOT was a young boy and continued until his mother’s death (I think) in the late 40s.  My concern was to find letters written during the 1930s that would reflect Trevelyan’s participation in the Surrealist movement and his involvement with Mass Observation.  I was successful in the former (in terms of JOT trying to explain to his mother what he was doing…sometimes very funny), but completely unsuccessful in the former.  That being said, I did find several letters (one from Peggy Guggenheim, even) that provided me with the tasty tidbits for which I was looking.

Tomorrow is my last day working in the Wren and then the long journey home on Saturday….stay tuned.


May 17, 2012 at 6:33 pm Leave a comment

Letters, letters, and more letters…

Often when I’m researching something, I wish that the one thing I’m looking for would point itself out to me like a neon sign advertising fresh donuts at Krispy Kreme (which, by the way, can now be found in England, along with Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, wagamama, and other “quality” imports).  This, of course, is never the case.  The golden nugget of information, in most instances, is compiled after hours and hours (days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months, or years and years) of searching and hours and hours (you get the picture) of analysis.  Today, I spent a great deal of time reading through (and transcribing) piles and piles of personal correspondence.  Most of the information that I read today won’t directly be involved in my next project, but it does — if nothing else — give me a great deal of context (including information included in letters from his analyst) for understanding Julian Trevelyan and his aesthetic, political, and cultural motivations.  I’m also quite convinced that in trying to write about someone, you have to get to know them first…and nothing is better for that than reading through diaries, letters, postcards, etc.

Today, I walked to and from the Wren via Trumpington Street, in which are located some of Cambridge’s oldest colleges, including Peterhouse (the oldest), Pembroke, St. Catharine’s, Corpus Christi, and Queen’s.   Tomorrow, if it isn’t too wet and cold (sleet and rain today, so I’m wearing my winter coat), I’ll venture over to Jesus College…stay tuned.

May 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm Leave a comment

The Wren Library, Cambridge

This morning I walked about 1.5 miles into town in order to begin my week of being “a reader” in the Wren Library at Trinity College.  Trinity College was founded by Henry VIII in 1546 as part of the University of Cambridge.  The Wren Library, part of Trinity College, was completed in 1695 and is named after the famed architect who designed it, Sir Christopher Wren.

Cambridge is a small city, but it is still difficult to find one’s way.  The streets and lanes are narrow and follow no particular pattern or logic (for example, the road that I took this morning has four different names, depending upon where you happen to be), so — as I discovered — it can take some trial and error “walking around” to figure out where everything is.

Working in the Wren Library is an experience.  To enter, you must make an appointment in advance and, alongside photo identification, all scholars must present a “letter of introduction” from another reputable scholar in the field.  The “letter of introduction” stems from the very old practice of providing a reference from a known entity (i.e. person) in order to make the acquaintance of a third party.  As such, the referee vouches for the scholar, saying — in essence — that his/her intentions are worthy and that his/her scholarly practices are sound.  This seems odd when when thinking about contemporary American practices, but consider this:  the Wren Library contains within it books and manuscripts from as early as the eighth century, all of which need to be protected.  Proven integrity is thus necessary for any scholar wanting entry.

Wren Library

Wren Library, Trinity College


Wren Library (interior)

Tomorrow…a short run-down on the documents I’m reading and, hopefully, some photos of Cambridge!



May 14, 2012 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

Goodbye Bolton…hello Cambridge

I spent another day in Bolton on Saturday looking at Humphrey Spender’s photographs.  Although I had seen many of the images already (via digital means), I had certainly not seen all of them nor had I seen any of them “in person.”  It was an exciting moment to don my gloves, open the archival boxes, and, in many instances, see original 35 mm prints made by Spender himself.

After spending three hours going through four boxes of prints, I decided that I would do some “lensman” -like activities myself.  I wanted to go out into Bolton and find some of the scenes (or at least locations) that Spender (and Trevelyan) had originally captured.  Much to my dismay (but perhaps not to the dismay of native Boltonians), most of early 20th century Bolton no longer exists (buildings — including old row houses, tenements, and mills — have been razed to the ground, street names changed, etc.).  Nonetheless, I did manage to record some of the city centre, where much of the architecture remains the same as it was during Spender’s time in Bolton.

Bolton Town Hall

Bolton Town Hall (Victoria Square, Bolton)

Museum, Art Gallery, and Library

Museum, Library, and Art Gallery (Le Mans Crescent, Bolton)

St. Philip's Church of England (Bolton)

St. Philip’s Church of England (Bolton)

I spent most (read:  ALL) of the day on Sunday traveling to Cambridge.  In theory, I should have arrived there in the mid-afternoon.  In practice, though, I made it here in the early evening.  My train ride from Manchester was uneventful, but when I got to London my luck came to an end.  Using the Underground system on a Sunday means dealing with station closures, maintenance work, and, in my case, a series of signal failures.  My train from Manchester came into Euston and I then had to travel roughly five Tube stops to Liverpool Street in order to catch the train to Cambridge.  This train journey would usually take about 15 minutes.  When I did it, it took close to an hour and forty-five minutes…and, largely in frustration, I WALKED (with my enormous suitcase) the last quarter mile between the stations.

Although I was initially relieved to finally settle down into my train carriage and eat some lunch, my moment of quiet contemplation quickly came to an end when I was joined by a few hundred of my closest friends…a rowdy (extreme understatement) group of Tottenham Hotspur fans going out to watch the last Spurs football game of the season.

Upon arriving in Cambridge by 6pm, I found the guest house where I am currently staying and collapsed in a heap!


May 14, 2012 at 8:03 pm Leave a comment

Well, I’m back again…

I arrived in Manchester on Thursday evening and, on Friday, made my way out to Bolton in order to begin looking at Julian Trevelyan’s photographs,  sketches by Graham Bell and Humphrey Jennings, and various other materials.  All of these items (whether because too fragile or out of rotation) were not on public display, so I had to make an appointment in advance in order to meet with one of the collections managers who could then accompany me into the climate controlled storage space to view the works.

The one Jennings’ sketch in the collection was a preparatory work for a painting, which is also in the Bolton Museum’s collection, that details a crowd watching “Listen to Britain” in a cinema.   Graham Bell’s sketches, I discovered, were not only prefaces to his paintings, but also a resource because of the detailed notes that he made in them.  Treveylan’s photographs, most of which have not been digitised, were likewise informative, in this case offering insightful information as to the nature of the Worktown project.   Not incidentally, the surrealist drive in these images is quite strong (much more so than Trevelyan’s colleague, Humphrey Spender).  Treveylan’s love of contradiction, oddity, and the uncanny seem evident in almost every work.

Although I was not able to make copies of any of these items, I did try my hand at sketching what I was seeing.  I have discovered, accordingly, that I am complete rubbish when it comes to art-making.  Stick figures abound and no one building exists on the same plane as any other (even if they are on the same sheet of paper).  Oh well…anyone who asks will be told that my drawings are done in the genre of Braque and Picasso…

Tomorrow, I’m going back out to Bolton to see some Spender images (in the flesh) and hopefully take some of my own photos.

May 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm Leave a comment

Mass-Observation 101

Whenever I’m in Mass-Observation mode, I become a bit of an observer myself…particularly when I’ve got my camera out and I’m recording everyday events or things (rather, things that are “everyday” to those around me).  This trip, I started taking photos of signs about the city.  I haven’t come to any conclusions about what larger meanings they might hold…

And how might one describe a dishonest sausage?

Hmmm.... (Window of a music shop)

Not a culture inclined to euphemism...

Very sensible! Hourly, daily, and season rates available for lounging in Regent's Park...

The humble hired loo...

Completely disavowing its bashful cousin the Loohire, the much more cosmopolitan and indeed stylish Cityloo stakes its claim in the City of Westminster.

single lens medium format camera = efficiency in 21st century surveillance

July 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm Leave a comment

Coming to and end…

For the last two days I have been finishing up at the archive and madly running around London to cover many the museums and galleries associated with the work of William Coldstream.  I have been (obviously) to the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery (much of Coldstream’s work after his GPO period was based in portraiture), and then to Imperial War Museum (which holds many of Coldstream’s works and papers from the wartime period because he was an official war artist).  Making contacts and figuring out which resources exist where and how one gets access to it seems like taxing legwork, but it does pay off…particularly if you can introduce yourself to curators and archivists in person.   This is to say, if you don’t research in the country where you actually live making friends, colleagues, or even casual connections abroad is WELL worth the effort.

I also took a couple of side trips, including to the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I wanted to see if I could find any ephemera in the V&A collections (much like the chaotic interests of Mass-Observation, so also is the collection at the V&A — ceramics, books, furniture, fashion, glass, jewellery, metalwork, photographs, sculpture, textiles and paintings, amongst almost every other object you might care to consider) that might indicate relevance to the project (most of the museums in the UK are free, so going in and looking around costs absolutely nothing…and may prove rewarding).  I’m not sure how well my searching paid off in terms of research potential, but it was certainly rewarding to see THIS (below) in the early 20th Century collection…

Mass-Observation's second publication "Britain by Mass-Observation" in the collection at the V&A

Very, very early on Friday morning (7am), prior to gallery and archive openings, I ventured out on a pilgrimage of a more personal nature.  My grandmother was born in London and lived in a house — before emigrating to Canada when she was 6 years old — only about 2 miles from where I am staying.  I wanted to see the house where she lived with her family and so I drew myself a map for myself and set out walking.  It was MUCH longer than I suspected (but I did pass a commemorative statue of Sigmund Freud and the entrance to his street enroute), but very rewarding once I arrived (albeit with sore feet…) at my grandmother’s little Victorian row house.

52 Maygrove Road, West Hampstead, London NW6

Cheerio for now…

July 10, 2010 at 7:18 pm Leave a comment

St. Pancras Station

Today I finished searching through William Coldstream’s personal correspondence.  Alas, no prized letter from Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge, or Humphrey Jennings…but that’s part of the adventure — you don’t always find what you want.  And you’ll never know what exactly is there until you do the leg-work and look through the ALL the files yourself.

But the great thing about having to look through EVERYTHING is that you find other documents that you never even suspected might exist.  After finishing up with the letters, I began rummaging through a few files of odd photographs.  Most were photographic reproductions of paintings that were commissioned in the early post-war period, those in public galleries, as well as many that have been lost or are held in private, unaccessible collections.  This was a great archival windfall because I won’t ever see many of these images any other place.

But the real success of the day was finding a particular photograph in a file of ephemera.  After his film career, Coldstream began painting in an acutely objective way.  One of these works was a painting of the platforms at St. Pancras Train Station created in the late 1930s.  My great finding was the actual photograph from which Coldstream worked, the surface of which is marked with Coldstream’s own penned grid marks that he used to transfer the image.  As the English would say, I was absolutely gobsmacked!  In my hands I was holding the same image held by Coldstream while creating one of his most famous paintings.

Tomorrow, portraits…stay tuned.

July 8, 2010 at 8:29 pm Leave a comment

Like looking through someone’s underpants drawer…

I’m sitting in my tiny apartment with the Spain-Germany game on in the background (to see if oracle Paul, the psychic octopus who places his eight legs on different flag markers to articulate his predictions  — and who made UK headlines this morning by predicting a Spanish win — is correct) and I’ve just seen a red fox climb up onto the wall under my window.  At first I thought it was a small and very nimble dog, but apparently red foxes in England — even in the city — are as common raccoons are in the States.  Nonetheless, I was still stunned and in my shock moved too slowly to catch a picture. Here’s a version of what I saw…

A version of what I saw from my window....

But back to the subject at hand…

Today I finished up Graham Bell’s early letters and discovered that he was, in fact, not a fan of Bolton.  Indeed, judging by his tone, I’d say he was quite severely traumatized by the experience of spending three weeks there working for the Mass Observers.  He refers to the city as “grisly” and “indistinguished” and more to the point, that the food “is too horrible” even to describe.  But Bell does have a sense of the good that his work might do in bringing the plight of the industrial working class to into the consciousness of the nation.  Indeed, at the end of one of his letters, Bell does write that he wishes to return to Bolton and keep painting in order create works for the local art gallery.

[aside:  Spain has just won a spot in the final…clearly oracle Paul the octopus IS the 8th wonder of the world]

I then moved on to files, files, and more files of William Coldstream’s collected correspondence.  Rather than reading letters written by him, I was reading letters written to him by friends, family, and colleagues. In looking for a gem (namely, any letter written to him by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings, or anyone else associated with Mass Observation), I stumbled across so many tidbits of information that I never would have found otherwise.  So much can be discovered by the serendipity involved in reading through stacks of communications that were — in many cases — never intended for public view (hence the title of today’s post…)

coldstream image

William Coldstream (center) with his good friends Wystan (W.H.) Auden (right) and Benjamin Britten (left)

Included in these files of letters are messages from Sir Kenneth Clark, W.H. Auden, Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, John Bratby, Alberto Cavalcanti, Lawrence Gowing, and Duncan Grant, amongst others.  I think what struck me most, however, was a letter authored by a complete stranger.  Responding to Coldstream’s 1937 article in the BBC magazine The Listener (entitled “How I Paint”), the writer wanted to tell the painter that he was grateful for what Coldstream had argued about the nature of painting in general and, more specifically, the need for realistic visual representation.  A failed painter himself, the writer informs Coldstream that the depression he feels over the state of the arts in Britain (abstract and alienating) was temporarily lifted by Coldstream’s words.

Unfortunately, I only got to the “G” file (alphabetical by sender) by 5pm this afternoon when the archive closed for the day.  Tomorrow, we move on to the “H” file and perhaps some “Harrisson” entries!

And, in case you are curious, here’s oracle Paul…

Oracle Paul the work

July 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm Leave a comment

A great find…

Today I took the Tube from Belsize Park to Pimlico (Northern Line to Victoria Line) and the ride lasted approximately 20 minutes.  This must be a record so far…particularly since I was passing through some of the busiest stations in London.  Underground security is quite high this week as well given that tomorrow is the anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks.

The Tate Gallery opens about an hour before the Tate archive does, so I spent the first 60 minutes of my day strolling around the collection.  It is always thrills me to see things “in the flesh” (so to speak)…

Highlights of today include:

Leon Kossof, Man in a Wheelchair (1959-62)

Leon Kossof’s Man in a Wheelchair is a spectacular example of “sculptural” painting.  Kossof’s canvas is roughly layered with hills and valleys of swirling pigment, some of which sits two inches off the canvas surface…the topography is so accentuated that dark shadows are actually cast across the picture plane giving the subject matter a very eerie sensibility.

I can’t really say I’m a “fan” of Damien Hirst, but I do find the yBa phenomenon strangely compelling (and by that I don’t mean that it’s aesthetically pleasing or always good work, merely “the movement” is very interesting), hence Away from the Flock (1997) makes it as part of my list.  And, more to the point, I’ve never actually seen a pickled sheep before…

Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock (1997)

Vanessa Bell’s Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915) makes it into the highlight section because of the quirky story behind the portrait and, more importantly, because I love Bell’s Matisse-inspired palette. Mary Hutchinson was the mistress (the Bells had an “open” marriage in everything but name) of Bell’s husband, the critic Clive Bell.  When the painting was exhibited, Vanessa Bell was claimed to have said matter-of-factly, ‘It’s perfectly hideous…and yet quite recognisable’.

Vanessa Bell, Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915)

When the archive opened I signed in and finished up transcribing the rest of the letters written by William Coldstream to Jack Rake that I had started yesterday.  I am particularly interested in the notes he wrote to Rake about his work with Mass Observation.  Coldstream doesn’t offer too much detail about his participation in this particular set of documents (but there are many more to investigate!), however he does discuss at length his increasing sense of social responsibility and how he could use his skills as a painter to promote social justice.  The search will continue tomorrow….

My great find of the day was a set of photocopied letters written by the painter known as Graham Bell (his full name is Frank Graham Bell).  Coldstream and Bell began sharing a studio in 1937 and had very similar left-leaning political views.  Although most of Bell’s archive has not yet been catalogued (and hence is not accessible to the public…all documents in the archive must be vetted by the archivists in order to determine whether or not they are sturdy enough to be viewed by the public and also because many of the documents archived are private correspondence naming individuals who are still alive or whose families are still living), these letters to his family in South Africa are available for consultation and provide a wealth of information.  Indeed, two of the letters that I have found so far reveal a great deal about Bell’s experiences working as a painter for Mass Observation in April of 1938.

Unfortunately, Bell’s handwriting is atrocious…I feel as though a crash course in modern palaeography  might have been in order before staring this venture…

July 6, 2010 at 8:24 pm 3 comments

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